THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Desperate for Change
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Aug 1, 2010
There is something terribly sad in the debate about the effort to give the Mayor of Detroit control of our public schools. As the Governor, foundations and some local ministers line up to increase the pressure on the City Council to put the question of mayoral control on the November ballot, the desperation can be felt on all sides of the issue.
Governor Granholm, who campaigned vigorously in Detroit on the pledge of restoring its elected school board, is now pushing for mayoral control, repeating what has become a devastating litany of failures. Detroit has the worst academic test scores in the nation, etc. She says, “The status quo is entirely unacceptable.”
Everyone agrees that schools are in chaos. So despair and desperation combine to create an atmosphere where any action seems better than nothing. Such thinking is understandable but dangerous. Acting out of desperation rarely solves anything. Some actions are better than others. And some actions can make things worse.
The desire for Mayoral control comes from the belief that our broken educational system can be fixed if we just have one strong, bold, decisive leader at the top. Thinking that the crisis in education can be fixed with a topdown solution is grasping at straws. And it is evading the real question that our children are raising. “What is education for?”
Instead of thinking that the failure of the public schools is due to some deficiency in our teachers or our children, we should recognize that our children are telling us there is something terribly wrong with what and how we are trying to make them learn.
For over a century the role of public education has been to prepare good factory workers for the industrial economy. Schools prepared people for jobs. Those jobs and that economy are now gone. Yet many of us still tell our children that if they work hard, get good grades and go to college, they will get good jobs and live good lives.
Any child can see that this story is no longer true. Any child knows that even the most educated among us are struggling to find a place in a world that is changing faster than any of us imagined.
The real questions we need to discuss are what is the purpose of education in a changing time? What kind of education do we need to create socially responsible citizens to develop our democracy?
In 1992 I was part of a group of activists in Detroit, including James and Grace Lee Boggs, who started Detroit Summer because we believed that our young people were not the problem, but the solution to the crisis of our city. Recently reflecting on her experience in Detroit Summer, Julia Pointer Putnam writes:
“I was a successful student by the standards of my family and my teachers—I had certainly learned how to get good grades. But I was 16, and I felt stuck. Stuck in a city that everyone seemed to agree had reached its heyday and was now dead—no hope of ever having beauty or vitality or relevance again. Stuck in a high school that felt empty and soulless.
“My family praised me, but it was for things I was supposed to do. I was obedient, didn’t cause trouble, and my grades were fine. For that, my family was proud, appreciative.”
In Detroit Summer, however, Julia found adults who were “proud of me for going beyond that. … Proud because I cared about something other than myself. I’d never even thought to give myself credit for that.
“I was ready to put my time and energy toward a Detroit that I could be proud to live in.”
In Detroit we have the opportunity to create the kind of educational system that is essential for transforming ourselves, our communities our city and our country. This transformation begins with recognizing our children are seeking ways to create meaningful lives. They are desperate to use their imaginations, hearts and intellects to make a difference in our world, to create cities they can be proud to live in. That is our challenge.